Teacher Melanie Morton holds the manual for LAS Links, one of the bewildering number of standardized tests students will take in a year.
  • Teacher Melanie Morton holds the manual for LAS Links, one of the bewildering number of standardized tests students will take in a year.
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"Teachers have an analogy for all the testing that we are required to do,” says Melanie Morton, a Sweetwater Union High School District teacher. “You don’t lose weight if you just keep stepping on the scale and weighing yourself.”

With the passage of the federal law in 2001 called No Child Left Behind, school districts became more accountable, and this sent them into a testing frenzy. Rising test scores made banner headlines recently, but is there a dark side to testing? What are the hidden costs? What’s in it for the kids?

No Child Left Behind has created controversy among politicians as well as educators. “Instead of ensuring all of America’s children have access to a quality education,” says California congressman Joe Baca, “the legislation has tied the hands of teachers and school administrators, forced students to learn inane testing strategies instead of real-life skills, and made billions in profits for standardized testing companies.”

Most of us cannot imagine how many hours per year students spend taking tests. In addition, students spend time preparing for tests, practicing test-taking skills, and sometimes reviewing results.

Morton, who has been an English teacher with Sweetwater since 1985, recites a bewildering number of acronyms when asked what tests a high school student might take over the course of a year.

To begin with, every spring students in grades 9 to 11 take the California Standards Test (CST). The state establishes “standards,” or expectations for student performance on certain subjects: English, mathematics, science, and history/social sciences.

In addition, students in grades 9 to 11 take the Common Formative Exam (CFA) eight times a year. All students take the quarterly and end-of-course exams that the district devises for various subject areas. All 10th-grade students take the high school exit exam (CAHSEE); students who don’t pass retake it several times in 11th and 12th grades until they pass it. All 11th-grade students take the Early Assessment Essay Exam. English-language learners take the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) at least once a year. LAS (Language Assessment Scales) Links is taken four times a year by students enrolled in English language development. Students who intend to apply to four-year universities also take the PSAT, SAT, and ACT in 11th or 12th grades.

Morton, like other teachers, also gives her own exams.

The “standards” on which tests are based vary from state to state — and from decade to decade. “If you have been teaching long enough,” Morton says, “you have seen the educational pendulum swing many times.” In the last swing, according to Morton, English textbooks and tests were centered on literature. One year, her students were reading “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne in preparation for a test called “a response to literature essay,” when the district suddenly instituted a change. “While in the middle of the piece of literature, the district informed us that we would not be administering that essay and would instead administer an ‘EAP [Early Assessment Program] style prompt,’ which is a completely different style of essay,” she says. New materials and new strategies for writing needed to be taught.

The most troubling test that Morton administers is the one devised by the district. She questions its validity because teachers score their own students’ work and scores are publicized across the district.

Educational theories come and go regularly — the current standards-based learning is under attack because it is costly and dumbs down the curriculum. And, Morton says, “It often appears that the tests are driven by the testing companies and the textbook companies.” Testing companies charge for devising, distributing, and grading test materials, as well as for providing test-preparation materials and storing results. To get an inkling of the money involved, for the federally mandated state standards test and the high school exit exam, the state allocated $205,752,000 in the 2010–2011 budget.

The same year, the Sweetwater district spent $574,599 on state testing research and evaluation alone, according to documents supplied in response to a public records request. Staff salaries accounted for 85 percent of the figure.

Many Sweetwater teachers criticize testing because it interrupts the pacing needed for teaching the curriculum. “Some students, some classes just don’t get the material as fast as other classes,” says high school chemistry teacher Sandra Finkleberg. “We used to teach to mastery — I would stay with a chapter until the kids got it. Now our pacing is set by the tests.”

By way of example, Finkleberg discussed the California Standards Test, which is given to students in the spring. “They are testing our kids on a full year of lessons nine weeks before the year is over. It’s bad for the kids. Chemistry and biology lessons build on one another, but I have to interrupt the course suddenly in April and teach them the concepts that are going to be on the test.”

Sweetwater Education Association president Alex Anguiano says testing has resulted in fewer electives being offered at schools.

Sweetwater Education Association president Alex Anguiano says testing has resulted in fewer electives being offered at schools.

Alex Anguiano is currently the president of the Sweetwater Education Association, but when he returns to the classroom in two years it will be as a chemistry teacher at Hilltop High School. In a recent interview, Anguiano voiced another concern — that the emphasis on testing has resulted in fewer electives being offered to students.

One educational theory that has been popular for some time is called “Teaching the Whole Child.” As the theory goes, students need academics, but they also need art, music, computer science, and other subjects to round out their education.

Anguiano says teaching to state standards “encroaches on our elective programs, so what I see is fewer opportunities for students to take classes that help them to think creatively. You might see at a school math followed by math support, if a student is struggling. Some of these same students might go from an English class to an English support class. The end result is that these students don’t have a rich, diverse curriculum.”

Maria Castilleja, Sweetwater’s director of curriculum, acknowledges that the emphasis is on a curriculum that will appear on the state standards test. “In the last five years, we have gone through an evaluation of courses, trying to make sure all the courses we offer are aligned to state standards, and on some occasions that might decrease the number of sections we offer of a specific course, and on some occasions we increased, like the band class….”

Fewer choices, fewer electives, are available in poorer areas. “The more affluent parts of our district have a greater number of electives because they have fewer support classes,” Anguiano says. “Students who are looking for a richer curriculum will transfer out of the schools that have no electives.”

“We’re going to end up losing a bunch of kids if the state doesn’t start moving in a different direction,” says Mary Smith, a middle school teacher who prefers that her real name not be used. “Not every kid is going to go to college; we need electives for kids that want to go into service fields, like my husband, for example. The only class he ever showed up for in high school was woodshop. It’s a shame that they just keep cutting and cutting from those programs and putting all the emphasis on English and math.” Smith says that the woodshop classes laid the basis for her husband to go on to become a successful tradesman.

One of the electives Smith laments losing on her campus is Technology Lab, which incorporated aerodynamics and other branches of science. “If it’s not in the curriculum, then we can’t teach it, which makes a teacher’s creativity much less than what it could be.”

Tracking, or directing students to certain classes based on their test scores, worries teachers as well. In the last swing of the pendulum, tracking was considered harmful. A Stanford study from 1994 reported that tracking limits students’ opportunities. The study found that many students who aspire to attend college are not placed in appropriate classes and “parents often don’t know when a student has been tracked out of college-preparatory science and math classes.”

“Tracking is 100 percent in motion,” says Smith. “For example, in the magnet program that I teach in all the students are obviously already tracked because all of my students have scored proficient or advanced. Then, our school has the ‘collaborative team’ with many special education students, and then the middle-of-the-road students.”

Anguiano relates a story of how tests invoked another kind of tracking at a Sweetwater district school. “About six years ago, at Granger Junior High School, students were issued different colored shirts based on their California Standards Test scores,” he says. “That kind of indicates just how serious the problem is. After I shared that story with the school board the practice stopped.”

If testing absorbs classroom time and disrupts the pacing of instruction, what’s in it for the kids?

Maria Castilleja, Sweetwater’s director of curriculum, says No Child Left Behind “is allowing educators, classroom teachers, administrators, parents, and students to evaluate the learning experiences that we are providing the students and to assess whether those learning experiences are valuable.

“The more frequent we test, the sooner we can intervene and assist students in acquiring the state standards,” she says.

However, James Bogart, who teaches Human Performance and Well Being at Rancho del Rey Middle School, disagrees. “Right now, California state testing is only for administrators, because their scores are looked at and then they are possibly fired or promoted because of them. So the administrators turn around and put the pressure on the teachers to get the scores higher. If you look at the states where testing is tied to bonuses and merit pay — Texas, Georgia, North Carolina — statistically, cheating has gone up.”

But it’s not necessary to look so far afield to see how pressure to produce plays out. In June, a Union-Tribune article exposed a Sweetwater principal who had adjusted students’ Ds and Fs upward. As the article states, “The grade changes could help improve the school’s graduation rate, an important measure of success under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.” The principal, Diego Ochoa, subsequently resigned.

Bogart believes that students would be motivated to score higher if they had an investment in the results. “When the students are held responsible for that same test, when they are given some kind of grade, whether they get a bonus or a full bump up on their letter grade, then they have more of a buy-in.”

Castilleja concurs with Bogart on the idea of student buy-in. Although she is a strong supporter of No Child Left Behind, saying that it’s “more positive than anything else nationwide,” she believes the current assessment practices are “not perfect.… We are hoping that [federal] changes are done in a way that they could have an impact on the grades of the students and [that tests] could be given at a certain time of the year and provide the results soon enough so the students could see how they’ve done.”

According to Castilleja, since No Child Left Behind began, the number of Sweetwater students who transfer to San Diego State has increased and student preparedness has improved. Sweetwater has a college transfer program called Compact for Success. The number of students transferring “has grown from 88 students in 2000 to 597 in 2011.” These students are able to enter college without needing to enroll in remediation classes because their proficiency rates are up. (About 6000 students graduate from Sweetwater Union’s schools each year, according to the California Department of Education’s educational demographics office.)

Is test-taking “turning kids off from the real joy of learning?” Joseph Pistone wonders. Pistone teaches math full-time at Sweetwater High School and computer science part-time at Palomar College. He doesn’t dispute that test scores are rising, and he says “that’s all well and good,” but he stresses that there is a qualitative difference between training a student to perform on a multiple-choice exam and educating a student to think mathematically. “Kids will graduate and know the Pythagorean theorem, but go back in a few years and I guarantee many of them won’t remember it. We’re just training kids the way we train them on assembly lines: here comes a car, you pick up the bumper, you move the bumper over here, you put the screw in here…”

Pistone, like many others, feels that multiple-choice bubble exams are not a real test of learning or the ability to problem-solve. He likens the test mania to what happened with the college entrance exam. “The SAT was supposed to be a good measure of how well you will do in college, but we have testing agencies out there now that are so good at training you to take the test that a good score doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to do well in college. What you’re doing is kind of fooling the judge.”

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monaghan Sept. 21, 2011 @ 3:34 p.m.

There's plenty the matter with over-testing, and that should be fixed with judicious school district administration. Tests need not take "the joy out of learning" nor are they responsible for squeezing art and music and applied learning electives from the curriculum: that has been happening for years because public education is generally under-funded. Historically we in California choose between paying better salaries for educators and providing smaller classes or richer curriculum for students. We never seem to provide both.

Results of annual tests for public school grades 2-11, based on California academic standards for instruction, require teachers and principals to account publicly for what's happening academically in their schools.

This Academic Performance Index (API), is published every summer and covers the preceding school year's work. The API provides crucial timely information to the public on every California public school's academic status. Principals use test results and API information to adjust and improve site instruction. Parents depend on testing and API information to better help their kids and to make school-choice decisions. Community stakeholders such as employers and universities look to API information as an indicator about the effectiveness of local schools and the efficacy of tax dollars spent.

It's no coincidence that this story is running now just as State Senator Darryl Steinberg seeks to abandon the academically explicit API in favor of his Senate Bill 547 which would replace it with a much more amorphous descriptor of what's happening in public schools -- an index that would report "career and college readiness" rather than hard facts about reading, math, social studies and science.

SB 547 is being promoted as more friendly to the arts and applied learning to gain support, though it is not at all sure that Governor Brown will sign it. Personally, I hope he will veto SB 547 because it is not in the public interest.

In fact, SB 547 does serve the longstanding goal of the California Teachers Association. CTA wants to dismantle standards, related testing and publication of schools' API as inimical to the interests of teachers -- whose employment, in some bellwether cities such as Los Angeles, is becoming tied to classroom performance as measured by tests.


zollner Sept. 21, 2011 @ 4:13 p.m.

James Bogart is the only one who gets it about testing. The students are not held accountable for their test scores, only teachers and administrators. As of right now testing results don't effect students, it doesn't effect their grades, promotion to the next grade, or getting into college. One of the first things you learn when studying algebra is to balance both sides of the equation, where is the balance in this testing equation? One other thought, who is going to want to teach if your job depends on how students do on a test, yet they are not accountable.


Susan Luzzaro Sept. 21, 2011 @ 4:14 p.m.


Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I did just want to reassure you that this article wasn't timed in anyway. I had the idea last year, then began working on it this year...then life interfered for awhile. Susan


justateacher Sept. 21, 2011 @ 7:34 p.m.

Step one, ignore anything Castilleja has to say. She was promoted under Gandara's reign. He promoted all forms of incompetence as long as they would do whatever he said and she is a shining example of that. The cleaning house needs to continue if there is any hope of regaining our district and Medina and Castilleja are at the top of the list who still need to go away! Testing is not the answer and no Maria NCLB is not a good thing. If we were to publish the tests that our district just gave as a quarterly assessment the district would be humiliated!


sissyjacks Sept. 21, 2011 @ 7:47 p.m.

The fact that Ms. Castilleja agrees with NCLB is reflective of just how 'out of touch' she is. I am amazed that ANY Administrator, let alone one employed in one the Nations Largest School Districts, would make such a statement.

Many in the District have long believed that a NEW Director of Curriculum is needed before any progress can be made. Her constant bragging of test results does not seem to reflect the truth of the matter - if the District is doing so well then why are we still under the States Program Improvement, year 3 at that?


sissyjacks Sept. 21, 2011 @ 7:38 p.m.

I disagree with Ms. Castilleja. One of the primary reasons for more students attending San Diego State is due to Compact for Success. Thank you Dr. Brand for that!

Unfortunately the previous Superintendent was so focused on test scores and proving that he was 'turning things around' that it ended up resulting in the exact opposite - we are now involved in State Program Improvement Year """""3"""""".

I am interested in this test that Sweetwater devised. Based on all the Community has learned recently about what was really going in, I do NOT believe that Ms. Castilleja, who I assume (apologize if I am wrong) came up with said test; or ANYONE ELSE AT SWEETWATER needs to be preparing ANY additional tests for our students.

Our District pays thousands, upon thousands, upon thousands yearly for 'consultants', these dollars are coming out of the very budgets that would be better served by hiring more teachers thereby lowering class size. Sweetwater, does NOT get it.

It is apparent that those in charge of curriculum at the District level have failed and therefore should be replaced.

Our students are not being served well by this District. Our Teachers are struggling with large class size, lack of recognition, and misused tax dollars. Our students are deserving of much more. We are in debt up to our eye balls and yet the District fails to acknowledge the Program Improvement issue, fails to deal with the large drop out rate, and has yet to deal with the struggling African American students. We are being consistently hit with justifiable investigations i.e. recent Special Ed issue (State found us noncompliant) which takes the focus off of the task at hand.

Rather than simply commenting here, it would serve the Community as well if all reading this article would attend the Board Meetings. Currently we have only ONE Board Member who appears to focus her interests and efforts on the students and fiscal responsibility of the tax payers dollars - Ms. Bertha Lopez. Try to attend and then make up your own minds on how we can improve.

As a side note, the South Bay community owes Ms. Susan Luzzaro for her continued interest in the students - they are after all our hope for the future. Ms. Luzzaro has long been a source of information for us all. Thank You Ms. Luzzaro!


johndewey Sept. 22, 2011 @ 3:34 p.m.

Managhan's comment that education is generally under-funded is right on, but in my opinion, tying teachers' employment to classroom performance as measured by tests, is wrong. This could be grossly unfair to the teacher. One wouldn't tie a doctor's employment to, let's say, a patient's failed blood pressure test. The patient, for whatever reason, might've ignored their physician's advice to not smoke, eat right, exercise, or take medication as prescibed. Is the doctor blamed? No. In education, the positive connection between parental support and student success is a generally accepted concept highly advised by educators, as is students understanding that academic success and a successful life are connected. Unfortunately, and for whatever reason, many times this advice is ignored. Should teachers be blamed? No. Like all professionals, they should be held to a high standard, but using these tests to measure their performance seems way off base, as well as an incredible waste of money that could be better spent, again as managhan suggests, on smaller class size and richer curriculum for students. Good article! It's nice to hear the opinions of the classrom practitioners.


JoshuaNewman Sept. 22, 2011 @ 11:53 p.m.

What is of interest is the deeper, more profound question: Why is all this testing going on? What of the regimentation of the curricula, nationwide, and the elimination of history? Chalmers Johnson said, "Americans know so little history, they cannot connect cause and effect." That's true. Dr Rich Gibson from SDSU said, "The Education Agenda is a war agenda, a class war and empire's war agenda." He said that about nine years ago and he is still right. Schools are little more than human munition factories, depending on your birth class, parental income, of course. So, this article is not on point, but a diversion from the more significant point that must be made as the corporate state emerges, in schools and out.


Susan Luzzaro Sept. 23, 2011 @ 11:05 a.m.

Thank you Sissy Jacks for the kind words. In many cases it is the students who first stirred my interest in this subject. I remember when a kindergarden teacher who lives close to me told me she was teaching her class how to locate the title, the table of contents, the name of the author , the name of the illustrator. She was lamenting the time that kindergarden was used to teach the kids to socialize, to share, to listen to stories read aloud....

Personally, I wish more literature was taught. A variety of fruit is born from reading widely.

as for JoshuaNewman's comment...I agree there are many competing agendas in education. This is only one aspect to testing.


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